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Ski Resort Life

Warren Miller: Fast Times

In ski racing, even the smallest advantage can produce a victory—and often the edge is right under your feet.

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Originally published in September 2004 issue of SKI Magazine.

It was a cold spring day in 1935 at the summit of the Weissflugipfel in Davos, Switzerland. The 43 ski racers, who were going to put their lives on the line for the Parsenn Derby, a 7.5-mile downhill race to the village of Kublis, had prepared as best they could. This would be the toughest downhill ever held. The course had no gates of any kind. Just a start and a finish line. Any route was fair game. With enough courage and ability, a racer could take any shortcut he could find. He could rocket through farms, careen down icy hay-sled paths, get airborne across switchbacks and, if the snow was deep enough, ski right over buried fences. I can’t even call it a racecourse, because almost every racer had a different route.

Warren Miller November 2002
Warren Miller

On race day, the curious queued up early to ride the new Parsenn Bahn cable railway to watch the anticipated carnage of this odd new sport of ski racing. The forerunner, a lad named Wolfgang, shoved off with encouragement from several hundred spectators shouting in half a dozen languages. He had a Swiss cowbell tied around his neck to warn anyone-or anything-to get out of the way.

Not one of the best skiers, Wolfgang finally arrived in Kublis some 34 minutes later. Upon his finish, officials waved a flag at the telegraph operator in the railroad station, who then telephoned an official in Davos Dorf, who in turn telephoned the Weissflujoch Station at the top of the Parsenn Bahn, where another flag was raised to signal race officials at the top of the course that the course was clear.

One by one, the racers straggled in with tales of near death at speeds previously unimaginable, up to 30 mph in some sections.

Racer No. 3, his bib torn almost off his body, reported that deaf old Friedl had forgotten about the race and walked his cows home after their morning watering. Most of them had left droppings in the middle of the route. Racer No. 3, however, still set the time to beat, a new course record at 28 minutes.

Then when bib No. 19 finished in less than 25 minutes, the spectators went berserk. No. 19, who had built two jumps over the farmyards, missed his first one, yet somehow made it to the finish line-albeit with only one pole and one and a half skis.

Suddenly, a young Swiss racer hurtled out of the trees, with a number completely out of sequence. Either he had started at the wrong time or he had passed a dozen racers. At 19 minutes, his time would be the fastest of the day by almost six minutes.

Walter Prager, who would become the ski coach at Dartmouth College, was the man who set the record for the Parsenn Derby Downhill that day. It was a record that would stand for more than a decade.

His secrets? The right wax, skiing skills as fine as anyone on the hill and a stealth weapon: metal edges, which many of the racers hadn’t even seen before.

Walter had spent a week studying the routes from the summit. Two days before the race, the variables came together. He realized that all of his left turns would be on hard snow, and all of his right turns would be on soft snow. The night before the race, Walter unscrewed the steel edges on the right-hand side of his skis and replaced them with brass edges he had made himself. Why? Because Walter’s uncle, an engineer, had convinced him that brass edges would have a lower coefficient of friction in the warmer, wet soft snow.

Did Walter realize how metal edges would change the sport? Who knows? But on that day nearly 70 years ago, technology and skiing collided on a crazy racecourse in Switzerland, and they haven’t been apart since.